The Great Renaissance

The most compelling evidence I’ve come across that we have a say in when we begin our ride through space and time is my birthday, August 16, 1952.

For a guy whose life would not be worth living without music, I could not have come up with a better time of arrival.

Think about it. My earliest musical memories were of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, Carl Perkins and the one and only Elvis “The Pelvis’’ Presley laying down the asphalt on that magical, mystical musical highway to the Promised Land.

Then, at the tender age of 11, I sprawled out in front of our black-and-white Philco on Forest Avenue in Franklin, N.C. to watch four mop-top weirdos from someplace called Liverpool, England do their thang on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was transfixed. I was pole-axed. I was never, ever, ever, ever the same.

My mother, seeing my wide-eyed wonder, prayed for my soul.

She meant well, but she was too late.

All my life I’ve heard people debate which was the greatest decade of music. The two leading candidates seemed to be the 60s and 70s. Finally, after mulling the question for years, I realized the start and end of a decade is way too arbitrary for a line of demarcation.

Did music suddenly start to suck on Jan. 1, 1970. Of course not. American Beauty showed up in at the Record Exchange on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street that year, as did Live at Leeds, Let It Be, Layla, Sweet Baby James, After the Gold Rush, Moondance, Bridge Over Troubled Water and CSNY’s Deja Vu.

And did the explosion continue to rock our world all through the 70s? This is just me talking, but I found less and less I really, really, REALLY wanted to listen to by the time the calendar finally turned to 1980.

There’s no doubt in my mind the Beatles hitting our shores in 1964 begat the Tsunami that deluged our musical consciousness for at least the next dozen years. And if I had to pick a time when it all started to peter (as in a verb, not a noun) out was when John Travolta disco danced across our theatre screens in Saturday Night Fever and the whole scene became less about the art and the soul and more about the clothes and what anyone could find to sniff up their nose. Style trumped substance, and we all suffered for it.

But oh those 12 years, from 1964 through 1975, what a time to be coming of age, to be cutting your musical teeth, to be alive. Oh what a lucky boy I was.

One of these days I plan to get around to writing a book about that period, and again, I’m halfway there. I already have my title:

The Great Renaissance.

I defy anyone to name a richer, more vibrant, creative and mind-expanding cosmic period of musical history than what I experienced (and yes, Jimi, I was experienced) from ages 11 through 23. Even the sub-groupings work out so perfectly in that if 1964-75 was the Great Renaissance, then the five years in the middle, 1967-72, was the High Renaissance. And if the double entendre escapes you, you obviously weren’t there.

And what great occurrence transpired right smack in the middle of the High Renaissance, in August of 1969 on a bucolic landscape in upstate New York.

That’s right. Woodstock.

My daughter Rebecca grumbles and rolls her eyes when I go on and on about our period of music. I’m actually proud of the way she champions and defends her music, the music that came along after she was born in 1990. And I’m not too lunk-headed to see that there have always been great musicians making great music. We danced our behinds off this June at Nate’s wedding to a 90s band called, appropriately enough, The Clinton Years. A rowdy and rollicking time was had by all.

But even Rebecca, in a weak moment, will acknowledge that there has never been and likely never will be a band like the Beatles.

As a former journalist, I was trained to qualify and quantify my assertions, to attribute, to deal in facts and not just fly by the seat of my pants. To that end, I spent the morning scrolling through Rolling Stones’ Top 500 albums of all time.

Now none of this is to say that Rolling Stone is the be-all, end-all arbiter of all things to do with popular music, but it is one source worth at least checking out.

And my suspicions were indeed confirmed. Of the list of Top 500 albums of all time, a grand total of 222 (or 44 percent) were released from 1964 through 1975. And that’s not even counting the Greatest Hits collections from artists of that period released later by Rhino and other retro-labels.

What also became apparent was that the concentration of albums from the Great Renaissance got heavier and heavier the higher up the list I went.

Of albums ranked 500-400, 31 were from the GR.

Of those ranked 400-300, there were 34.

Of those 300-200, there were 44.

From 200 to 100 it was 54.

And of Rolling Stones’ Top 100 albums of all time, 59 were from the greatest 12 years of music we’ve ever known.

But listen to this: Nine of the albums ranked in the all-time Top 10 were from the Great Renaissance.

No. 10 was The Beatles’ White Album (1968), No. 9 Bob Dylan’s Blond on Blond (1966), No. 7 The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street (1972), No. 6 Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (1971), No. 5 The Beatles Rubber Soul (1965), No. 4 Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (1965), No. 3 The Beatles’ Revolver (1965), No. 2 The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) and No. 1, of course, The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

With the one and only Billy Shears.

I know you’re wondering what was No. 8. It was the Clash’s London Calling, a call I have absolutely no trouble with.

How I would love to live through another period to match the Great Renaissance but I suspect one of those come along only in a Blue Moon of Kentucky.

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